By now it is obvious that the experiment with remote learning last spring was not positive for either students or teachers. Curricular expectations were unclear, technology was inequitably distributed, and the transmission of lessons was unreliable, Of course, teachers were unprepared for the sudden transition.
In short, remote learning was a mess across the country.
It didn’t help that students who were passing their courses as of mid-March were essentially gifted a pass for the year regardless of how often they attended their remote learning classes. With no punishment for not participating, many students simply checked out. This had a profoundly negative impact on their learning.
Remote learning works well when it is thoughtfully planned and voluntary for both students and teachers. Neither of these things describe what remote learning looked like last spring. The evidence is clear: in-class learning is superior to remote learning.
Unfortunately, whether we like it or not, remote learning is making a comeback.
Starting next week, grades 7-12 students in Alberta will shift to remote learning. This will continue until at least the middle of January. Considering the rise in COVID-19 cases across Canada, it is likely that other provinces will soon follow.
At this point, remote learning might be inevitable, at least for older students. The least school administrators and departments of education can do is to make sure that remote learning works a lot better than it did last spring.
For example, it is essential that students be held accountable for their schoolwork. It would be a huge mistake to grant students free credits based on the work completed prior to the transition to remote learning. If there is no accountability, participation in remote learning will drop dramatically.
In addition, remote learning needs to be as similar as possible to regular classroom learning. This means participating in synchronous lessons with classroom teachers, all together at the same time classes would regularly meet. Alternative arrangements can be made for the few students who lack internet access, but for the vast majority of students, technology makes it possible for them to participate in live classes given by their teachers.
During these synchronous classes, teachers need to enforce appropriate standards of behaviour, as they would if they were teaching in school. Students should not be permitted to disrupt others and they must participate like they would during regular classes. While it would be unrealistic to expect teachers to enforce a full dress code, at a minimum teachers should require students to dress appropriately.
Obviously, this means that students must have their cameras on so that teachers can see them and the students can see each other. Exceptions can be made for students whose internet service makes video streaming difficult or impossible. But the expectation should be that all students have their cameras on while their class is in session.
After all, we don’t allow students to check out or take naps during regular classes. There is nothing unreasonable about requiring students to actively participate in the learning process.
Some educators have argued that students should be allowed to log in whenever they want and access lessons at any time since this is the way that most post-secondary institutions conduct their distance courses.
There are two problems with this argument. First, post-secondary students are generally older and more capable of independent learning than are K-12 students. They also have more at stake in their learning since they are paying tuition.
In addition, K-12 remote learning is not intended to be a permanent fix. Rather, it is a temporary accommodation to the reality of a pandemic. Because remote learning is going to be temporary, it should be as similar as possible to the regular classroom learning. This will make it easier for students to transition back to regular in-class learning.
If students are going to be forced into remote learning, the least we can do is ensure that their school days retain as much structure as possible. Public education is an important investment by all of society and teachers need to minimize the damage caused by the pandemic.
As more schools in Alberta and elsewhere transition into remote learning, let’s make it work a whole lot better than it did this spring. Our students and their parents deserve nothing less.
Michael Zwaagstra is a public high school teacher, a senior fellow with the Frontier Centre for Public Policy, and author of A Sage on the Stage: Common Sense Reflections on Teaching and Learning.